Analysis: Baker’s Amazing Popularity Goes Far Beyond The Economy

Gov. Charlie Baker, seen here in November, has remained popular among Massachusetts residents over his first year in office. (Charles Krupa/AP)
Gov. Charlie Baker, seen here in November, has remained popular among Massachusetts residents over his first year in office. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Gov. Charlie Baker’s poll numbers are transcendent. As he finishes his first year in office, his sparkling job approval and favorability ratings are by far the highest of any current state leader, and among the highest in recent memory. By one measure, published last month, he is the most popular sitting governor in America. A Republican governor of a mostly blue state, Baker’s Adele-like popularity is surprising. He only just squeaked through his election contest with Democrat Martha Coakley in 2014. And the first year of his administration has been marked most distinctively by reforming, cutting and 65-part plans. Hardly the stuff of dreams.

So there must be another explanation, right? Last week, former Gov. Deval Patrick press secretary Alec Loftus penned an opinion piece for MASSterList crediting his former boss for Baker’s extended honeymoon period:

As any pollster will tell you, approval ratings are strongly tied to economic climate. And since Baker won election by a very slim margin, it’s clear that Massachusetts’ positive economic climate is a major factor to look at when it comes to his current support.

Let’s examine: As the keys to the corner office were passed to Baker, Bay State residents were left with more jobs, higher wages, and less poverty than residents in other states.

This is sort of true, but not a great explanation for the Baker phenomenon. There is a modest relationship between the health of the state’s economy and the governor’s popularity, and the Patrick administration did leave the state’s economy in good shape.

But Baker’s popularity far exceeds what would be expected based on the economy alone. Massachusetts has the 22nd lowest unemployment rate, according to the latest federal data, and for 2014 had the 15th highest GDP growth. Both of these marks are above average, but not extraordinary. Quarterly GDP growth in 2015 has been similarly decent.

Baker’s favorables, on the other hand, are extraordinary: He is much more popular than the governors of other states, including states whose economies, according to 2014 GDP data, outperformed our own.

State GDP growth is only part of governors' approval rating

The data from the chart above gives us a sense for how much of Baker’s popularity is due to the state economy. We examined several economic indicators by state, and modeled their impact on the job approval of all 50 governors. The relationship is somewhat tenuous, but using economic growth and unemployment as predictors would put Baker’s approval rating at around 55 percent. It’s actually in the low-to-mid-70s, depending on the poll. The recent Morning Consult poll, which collected approval ratings for all 50 sitting governors, put it at 74 percent, 19 points higher than economic forces would suggest.

This 19-point gap gives Baker the largest gap of any governor between his actual popularity and what would be predicted using only economic factors. To put it plainly, Baker’s non-economic popularity is greater than any other sitting governor. Patrick, on the other hand, was just about as popular as economic data alone would suggest he should have been at the end of his term. So the economy left to Baker by the Patrick administration helps, but there is a lot more to it than that.

Another possible explanation is how voters are feeling about the state’s economy, which is pretty positive, and has definitely improved in the last year. We won’t know how positive Massachusetts voters are feeling, relative to other states, until early next year, when Gallup’s annual rankings are issued. However, to the extent there is a disconnect between economic confidence and economic reality, it undercuts the idea that it is only economic performance driving Baker’s numbers rather than an improvement in residents’ economic mood.

If politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose, then Massachusetts voters seem to be in a prosaic mood. This could be why Baker’s focus on the nuts and bolts of governance is so appealing to voters. A WBUR poll conducted just after the 2014 election found a surprising 61 percent said managing state government was a very important issue when deciding on a candidate. Baker’s consistently high performance on this issue during the campaign was one of the key reasons he won.

Since the election, Baker’s focus on governance, to the exclusion of nearly all else, appears to have contributed to his strong poll numbers. He has steered mostly clear of party politics, and remains very popular with the state’s Democratic and independent voters. In an era in which our national politics are more polarized than ever, voters seem to rewarding his less partisan approach.

Of course, Baker needs to deliver on good management for his goodwill with the voters to continue. Having taken tough issues head on, he now owns of many of the thorniest problems in state government. If the changes he has made at the MBTA, the Department of Children and Families, the Health Connector and elsewhere do not improve matters, voters may start pointing the finger at him.

But for now, he is riding high, and not just because pocketbooks are full.

Steve Koczela is president of the MassINC Polling Group and a regular contributor to WBUR Politicker. He tweets at @skoczela

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